Nobody wins microaggression Bingo

I was recently at a workshop where I was one of two women (out of ten).  I’ve generally had a really great experience in working groups, but this once quickly morphed into a Bingo card of sexist microaggressions. With the plethora of recent articles on how there is no sexism problem in science, and how talking about microaggressions is the greatest threat to our universities (and not, say, funding or the adjunct crisis), I think it’s worth sharing this experience.

This workshop had it all. My female colleague and I were routinely interrupted, talked over, and ignored. One senior male participant stood up and gave a spontaneous presentation on something that “he’s never seen anyone mention before,” despite the fact that I had just shown the exact slide and mentioned the very point he did, not ten minutes before. Participants in very different fields mansplained our research to both of us, or in some cases dismissed our entire fields outright. They responded with hostility or patronizing tones to our questions or contrary points, but accepted the same criticisms with good nature from their male colleagues. The men asked one another questions that the women were better-suited to answer based on what we do, but we were talked over. During meals and coffee breaks, the men clustered together in groups and didn’t socialize with us. 

Halfway through the second day, I was so upset that I hid in the meeting room during a break, while everyone else clustered outside in the sunshine. My fellow female participant found me there, and confided in me that she was feeling really disconnected from the workshop. I agreed, and we tentatively started to explore our mutual feelings that what we were experiencing was a series of microaggressions: unintentional sexism on the part of our colleagues, that was none-the-less creating a hostile environment. We were both nervous to bring it up out of fear that the other would think we were overreacting. We were both so relieved to hear that we weren’t just imagining it: it was real, and it sucked.

For the rest of the meeting, our camaraderie was like an invisible shield. By this point, the senior male scholar who stole my idea was actively avoiding me, refusing to make eye contact or even talk to me (I’m still not sure what happened there). But we would often point to one another, saying, “I think she has a point to make,” or “as she brought up earlier,” backing one another up and trying to create space in the stifling atmosphere. It helped, a little.

One thing I found striking about this meeting is that my female colleague and I had very different personalities: she’s quite and tentative, I’m loud and assertive. Neither one did either of us any good. She’d get talked over and ignored, and I’d get interrupted and shut down. In academia, is it better to be forgotten, or disliked? This is the risk to leaning in — to elbowing your way to a seat at the table. You make enemies. I was very, very careful to match my male colleagues in tone and level of aggressiveness in conversation, and I noted a disproportionate level of negativity in reaction to things I’d say, compared with my male colleagues at the table. The differences were not in what was said, but in how I was perceived.

Ultimately, though, I got very little out of that meeting, but I did see expressly how harmful microaggressions can be. Nothing anybody did would qualify as something to report under Title IX, but the damage was done nonetheless. This trip was probably a net negative for me, overall: lost work time and little gain in the form of connections or future directions. I am nervous about following up on leading papers with some of these men as co-authors. I am even more nervous by the fact that I may have walked away from this workshop with enemies: high-profile scientists who may review papers or proposals and remember me as “shrill,” “bitchy,” or any of the other words we apply to women who stand up for themselves.

This could have been prevented. I’ve written before about how to be a supportive male colleague. The organizers could have started with a better gender balance among conference participants ( and I will think twice before participating in an unbalanced group again), and could have been better moderators of the discussion overall. The other men could have been better allies, pointing out when ideas were being repeated, not talking over women, or bringing us into discussions we were actively being excluded from.

There’s an emotional toll to being constantly undermined, ignored, dismissed, and downplayed. Throughout the meeting, my mind kept straying to the empty seats, and the women who weren’t there. I kept thinking about how even in our small actions, we create spaces that are welcoming, or not, to people who don’t look like us. What happened to all the women who got crowded out? The women who were tired of being ignored, dismissed, snapped at, or stolen from? The men in the room took up a lot of space, but they couldn’t possibly fill the gaping hole created by all those missing women.

18 thoughts on “Nobody wins microaggression Bingo

  1. Your story is a familiar one, and so very much reminded me of myself during my “pre-30” years. As an older person, my parents and their cohorts came from a generation (sadly) where this sort of behavior was not only widespread, but accepted and expected. Without even realizing it, that behavior imprinted upon me during my formative years. Without ever consciously recognizing it, I behaved almost as you have described- either ignoring women in these social contexts or, at best, subjugating their contributions.

    That all changed for me, when at the age of 29, my sister-in-law confronted me, and alleged I was a chauvinist. Initially, I recoiled and said there was simply no chance of such a thing. I asserted women were a part of my daily life, and I never once disparaged them. Then, she simply said, “Just pay attention to the differences in how you interact with men v. women, and you will understand me.”

    Gee whiz- she was spot-on correct. Her calling attention to my behavior caused me to rectify it ASAP. But I must confess, these are ingrained behaviors we learn from our role models as we mature, so they are not easily “unlearned.” You really have to work at it- and make it a daily practice for several years before it becomes natural. In looking back on all of this, I think the reason that my sister-in-law’s comments really struck a tone with me was in her approach. Number one, this was a person I genuinely cared for and respected- so what she had to say was important to me. Number two- she handled the entire situation in two sentences. Number three- she gave me the opportunity to “prove her wrong” when she said “just pay attention” to your behavior.

    She was confrontational without being aggressive, and she provided me the space to figure it out for myself. I don’t know if there are any lessons in my story- but, it might be helpful to confront these men individually, away from the group, and communicate your concerns while also giving them the “space” to figure it all out. I suspect the lion’s share of them are completely oblivious and are, sadly, a product of bad parenting.

    • I agree with you that men (and women) don’t respond kindly to being treated as the “enemy”; hostility can preclude empathy, and I believe everyone should be given a chance to become a better ally.

      But if she was aggressive, or frustrated, could you really blame her? These situations happen over and over and over again, and can have long-term professional consequences, so anger would hardly be an overreaction. If you ever do find yourself in a situation where someone DOES get aggressive, it’s nothing personal; and it shouldn’t take away from their underlying message. We aren’t all born as patient as your sister-in-law.

      • I understand your points. Certainly those whom are subjugated have every right to feel as they do. But I think that when someone is confronted aggressively, there is a tendency to recoil and become defensive. That reaction usually means your point won’t come through, and likely causes the offender to throw up a wall of denial.

        No too long ago I had a male department head who ruled with somewhat of an iron fist. He was also intimidated when someone of lower rank presented an idea that either he had not conceived of, or was at least a part of when the idea was formed. During one of our departmental seminars, I presented exploratory research that indicated a possible mechanism for a birth defect. He exploded in a fury- accusing me of undermining his authority. He threatened to fire me right there on the spot.

        My response to all of this was “I plead guilty to being overly enthusiastic,” and “I’ve been so bust writing grants and whatnot that it did not occur to me to inform you,” and “It was really your insights early on that led to this line of discovery.” While he remained red-faced and angry for the remainder of the meeting, he came to my lab later and said “That’s really a neat approach you have developed- let me know if there is any way I can support you going forward.”

        Some might say I swallowed my pride in apologizing for anything, but i really did not lose anything in so doing. In fact, all other faculty in that meeting approached in the coming days to praise me for how I handled the situation. But I will say, had I become aggressive & confrontational with him, chances are quite likely he would have found a way to get me out the door.

        • Thanks for your perspective. I agree that it’s often the case that people just need to be “clued in” to their behaviors to start to change. But I think the important issue is one you raised with respect to your sister-in-law: she was someone you knew and loved and respected, so you were receptive to her feedback. In professional situations, it’s difficult to raise these issues to your colleagues, when you don’t have such a foundation. For example, I find that I can call out my former male advisor on some of these issues, because we have a good relationship and a foundation of trust and respect between us, and he is someone who openly discussed these issues with his lab members. But for the vast majority of my colleagues, most of whom I respect and have good working relationships with, I would not confront them with these issues for fear of reprisal, either direct or indirect. And in a workshop setting such as in the example from this post? Never.

    • Wow—Eliot, you have done us a service by giving a personal example of consciousness raising — one we can use to help others understand that they may be blind to the behavior, and that it is possible to change. Kudos to you and thanks!

  2. I am glad you took the time to vent about this. I just worked on a project with 2 older white men and have told myself I will not do this again. My contributions were critiqued, changed without my permission, and then I was told to do more work by aligning my materials with one of theirs which was not the initial plan and only gave me last minute work after I had been the most prepared of the bunch. It is so tiring!

  3. As a female in a male-dominated field of science, I’ve had some awkward experiences with male colleagues. I once got feedback on a rough draft of a paper with the most condescending comments ever; I’m lucky that my thesis mentor has been supportive, but other professional interactions with men have been less than ideal. It can come off as, as you said, being talked over or dismissed, but I’ve found it most apparent in networking situations, which have far-reaching consequences.

  4. I am pleased that you attained some solidarity with the other woman, and you could support each other. More than you realise, this may have pointed out the behaviour of the others, who probably didn’t even realise what was happening. (Yes, that is the nub of the problem – it is often not so much micro-aggression, as macro-insensitivity to the situation as Elliot has mentioned).

    I had a similar situation, albeit more benign as we all knew each other, and it was a regular reporting session about “what we had been up to recently”. When the chair (a really nice bloke and generally a great mentor to both men and women graduate students) went to close the meeting, the other woman and I looked at each other in amazement as we were the only ones not to have reported our activities. The other woman said pointedly “Do you think that (male colleague’s name) and I do the same research, and moreover do you think he was speaking on my behalf?” Because we all knew each other etc etc, there was no animosity, but certainly there were red faces all around and the meeting was re-opened so that we could have our say. Hopefully, it was a lesson to all in the room about this type of un-thinking behaviour. One never knows how much people learn from these situations and modify their behaviour later.

  5. How does one deal with a colleague who is microaggressive towards everyone- male or female, people of every ethnicity (come to think of it, he is a racial minority himself!), able-bodied or disabled, senior or junior to him in the academic hierarchy, etc.? Basically, anyone other than himself? There was an incident where he was giving a talk, and some of my colleagues (female) called him out explicitly and publicly on his microaggression at the end of his talk, and my gut reaction was to speak up and tell them, “he’s not being sexist, he’s that way towards EVERYONE.”

  6. Sadly, the moderator for the session described in this initial blog post failed in his/her job by allowing this to occur. A good facilitator, male or female, should have recognized the dynamic and would have the skill set to articulate and diffuse it.

  7. Sometimes we get so annoyed with “PC culture” that we forget that biases like these impede our work and progress. Little incidents like this, compounded….. It adds up to a lot.

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  9. Elliot,
    I think it’s great that you used your sister-in-law’s comments to really explore your own behavior and incredibly impressive that you were able to a) honestly recognize what you were doing, and b) make changes to your behavior. I really do recognize and respect the difficulty of that. BUT – your suggestion throws the responsibility to correct this behavior back to the women in the group. It is not my job, nor the job of the women in this group, to fix other people’s behavior. When you throw this back to the people already burdened with the outcomes of that behavior, do you know how much you are increasing the load they already carry?

    If you want other men to learn what you did by listening to your sister-in-law then I would really encourage you to be an ally and do this work yourself. Men can call out other men with fewer consequences and likely with greater effect. Men who don’t listen to women about work ideas, tend not to listen to women about how to be better people. Also if there are consequences for saying things to men who behave this way then why do you expect women to carry them but not men?

  10. Did you consider simply leaving the meeting? Not walking out in a huff, but stating calmly that since it was clear your contribution was not welcome, you felt it was not an efficient use of your time. I’ve seen that done once and the effect was devastating.

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